This image illustrates two different ways that rotation can happen in a volcanic plume.
Click on image for full size
Image Courtesy of the Zina Deretsky/NSF, after Chakraborty et al., Volcanic mesocyclones, Nature, 3/26/09
Tornado-like Rotation is Key to Understanding Volcanic Plumes
News story originally written on March 23, 2009
Scientists are using information they have from past volcanic eruptions to better understand strong volcanic plumes. They have observed that in some volcanic eruptions, there is a spontaneous formation of a "volcanic mesocyclone," which is a rotating, column-shaped vortex that causes the volcanic plume to rotate on its axis. This rotation triggers the formation of lightning and creates waterspouts or dust devils. Waterspouts are like dust devils on land, but they contain water when they are over the ocean.
This phenomena was photographed during the 2008 eruption of Mount Chaiten in southern Chile. In addition, scientists have found a paper written by a sea captain in 1811. In the paper, the captain reported that he saw a volcanic vent coming out of the sea in the Azores archipelago that contained a large volcanic plume. According to the captain, the plume rotated on the water like a wheel and there were continuous flashes of lightning and a lot of waterspouts.
The scientists that worked on this project think that the rotation of these volcanic plumes is the primary cause of tornadoes, waterspouts, and lightning that have been seen in the plumes. They also think this process is similar to how a strong thunderstorm creates a tornado. The plume contains a column of hot gases and dust topped with an "umbrella."
In the future, scientists plan to look at satellite images of volcanic plumes taken every few minutes so they can study the formation of these umbrellas, with the rotation and lightning that go along with them. They also plan to study the volcanic plumes using Doppler radar, which is something meteorologists use to study thunderstorms but hasn't been used to study volcanoes before.
Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!
Our online store
includes issues of NESTA's quarterly journal, The Earth Scientist
, full of classroom activities on different topics in Earth and space science, as well as books
on science education!
You might also be interested in:
Ash is made of millions of tiny fragments of rock and glass formed during a volcanic eruption. Volcanic ash particles are less than 2 mm in size and can be much smaller. Volcanic ash forms in several ways...more
Lightning is the most spectacular element of a thunderstorm. In fact it is how thunderstorms got their name. Wait a minute, what does thunder have to do with lightning? Well, lightning causes thunder....more
Thunderstorms are one of the most thrilling and dangerous types of weather phenomena. Over 40,000 thunderstorms occur throughout the world each day. Thunderstorms form when very warm, moist air rises into...more
Radar is important to weather forecasters because it can detect rain and hail. The radar bounces radio waves off water particles in clouds. A computer measures how long it takes for the radio waves to...more
Scientists have learned that Mount Hood, Oregon's tallest mountain, has erupted in the past due to the mixing of two different types of magma. "The data will help give us a better road map to what a future...more
The Earth's mantle is a rocky, solid shell that is between the Earth's crust and the outer core, and makes up about 84 percent of the Earth's volume. The mantle is made up of many distinct portions or...more
Some geologic faults that appear strong and stable, slip and slide like weak faults, causing earthquakes. Scientists have been looking at one of these faults in a new way to figure out why. In theory,...more